The public square has always been as much a metaphor as a real place, but in either case it's on the endangered list. Shopping malls pretty much led to the extinction of the traditional town or village square in most American communities. The money-is-speech doctrine is doing the same to the metaphoric version.
Those who wish to control speech in this country don't have to engage in censorship or book burning to achieve their aims. All they have to do is commercialize speech and then make it prohibitively expensive. Turn the proverbial public square into a gated neighborhood with an entry fee so high that most people are priced out. The right to speak is an empty one if entering the public square involves paying a small fortune for air time or otherwise compensating those who get to decide whether yours will be among the voices heard.
I've made this point before - in an Earth Day speech back in 2003 and at Fighting Bob Fest in 2007 and probably a thousand other times - but a letter that arrived by certified mail today put this issue in a whole new light. The letter was from a law firm in Virginia representing the group Citizens United claiming that the Democracy Campaign's protest of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on election financing (that we called "Citizens United Against Citizens United") is a trademark infringement.
I'm having a hard time deciding whether the letter is more remarkable for its stupidity or its irony or the utter audacity of its premise. It claims we've created the impression that our protest was "somehow originated by, affiliated or associated with, connected to and/or approved by Citizens United - which it is not." That's the stupid part. Anyone looking at the online petition or the Facebook page can clearly see that this effort was organized by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and is protesting the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, not the special interest group itself.
The ironic part is that this group described the outcome of the case as a great victory for the First Amendment and free speech, but now seeks to stifle the speech of others who have a different view of the ruling's implications for political speech and the health of our democracy.
The audacious part is the presumption that some private interest can claim ownership of words like "citizens" and "united."
It's apparently not enough for those who wish to control political speech to own the place where public discourse occurs. It seems they also are intent on owning the terms of the debate.